When I saw the new CD Fifteen, by The Wailin’ Jennys on the shelf, I quickly grabbed it thinking it must have been serendipity. I first heard the group on the NPR show A Prairie Home Companion and was impressed by their close harmonies and plaintive sound – not to mention the crazy clever name. The Wailin’ Jennys are Ruth Moody, vocals, guitar, accordion, banjo ; Nicky Mehta, vocals, guitar, ukulele ; and Heather Mass, vocals.
Fifteen is the first recording in six years from contemporary folk’s The Wailin’ Jennys. A collection of cover songs, it includes tunes by Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton. Fifteen celebrates a 15-year musical partnership that has resulted in four award-winning studio albums and one live recording on Red House Records, three of which landed the trio on the Billboard charts. Additional musicians include Richard Moody (Ruth’s brother), Sam Howard, Adrian Dolan and Adam Dobres. Produced by The Wailin’ Jennys, Fifteen is a gorgeous feather in the cap of the band that has thrilled millions of listeners to A Prairie Home Companion radio.
Fifteen is a celebration of the Canadian group’s 15th anniversary. But as member Mehta told Billboard they chose to do an album of covers rather than original numbers because the fans requested it. Also, the three women are now mothers – hence the six-year gap between releases.
And if a group is going to perform covers, then “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty, Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” Emmylou Harris’s “Boulder to Birmingham,” and Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like a Rock” are sure bets. The pristine blending of their crystalline voices make The Wailin’ Jennys deliciously delicate, but the occasional twisty harmonies add a peppery surprise.
Rich Barnard wrote in his review, “the album’s secret weapon has to be the gently poignant rendition of Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’ which manages to be simple, sad and sweet all at once. It’s a great reminder of the massive songwriting talent that, as coincidence would have it, left us nearly fifteen years ago. The Wailin’ Jennys finish by playing things straight with Hank Williams’ ‘Weary Blues from Waiting’, the pure country harmonies of which will surely delight anyone hankering after a truly southern bluesy sound. It’s also an important number for the band as it was the first song they ever sang together and therefore a fitting finale to the album.”
Fifteen builds and arcs quietly and reverently. The acoustic delivery is a welcome break from the over-produced, digital bombast that is the current one-size-fits-all popular music trend.
Happy Listening, Susan C.
Also by The Wailin’ Jennys:
Bright Morning Stars – Since their 2001 inception in a Winnipeg guitar shop, the Wailin’ Jennys have been quietly and consistently crafting some of North America’s best modern roots music. Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody, and Heather Masse, the latter of whom took over for Annabelle Chvostek in 2007, sing like siblings and play like seasoned veterans, resulting in a seamless, understated sound that feels both perennial and distinctly Canadian. Lonesome and surprisingly comforting, the group’s fourth studio album, Bright Morning Stars, offers up 13 meditations on love, life, and loss that fit right in with the trio’s penchant for melding traditional folk songs and sea chanteys with contemporary themes. It’s a quiet but powerful collection of snowbound balladry that may be too subtle and unassuming for 21st century attention spans, which is a large part of its charm. Comparisons to Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch are apt, but the Jennys’ ability to harmonize like the family acts of old sets them apart from many of their contemporaries. Part Watersons and part Fleetwood Mac, songs like the pop-driven “Swing Low Sail High,” the jazzy “Mona Louise,” the timeless sounding “Bird Song,” and the sparse, largely a cappella title cut, feel grounded and effortless, despite their competing genres. ~ Review by James Christopher Monger
Firecracker – The band’s tight harmonies and pretty folk songs haven’t changed at all on their second album, Firecracker. In fact, they’ve even gotten better. Chvostek’s voice is seductively low and versatile, and it blends well with and adds a lot of strength and depth to the higher ranges that Ruth Moody and Nicky Mehta provide. All three Jennys are also great songwriters, and everything on the album is well done, with thoughtful reflective lyrics about love and friendship and death, the cold autumn wind of the Canadian prairie blowing through the record, shaping and influencing the mandolin, the banjo, the acoustic guitar, the violin, the National Steel. It’s music with a dark, sweet edge, like it understands the pain in the world but still chooses to focus on what’s good instead. “Swallow,” though in its attempt to maintain rhythm and rhyme the lyrics can occasionally sound a little corny (“You got me, arrow shot me/Now come connect the dot me”), lilts along like the bird itself as it explores love’s transience, while “Avila” is simple and pretty, with a delicate chorus of “O sweet peace never have you fallen/never have you fallen upon this town,” sung in three-part harmony, that sense of longing lodged between the notes of a slow, aching electric guitar solo that winds its way through the song. A similar feeling is also apparent in “Glory Bound,” manifested as a desire for a reprieve from life’s hardships. It’s not morbid, it’s simply sad and honest in that uplifting way that only country and folk music can be. There is a melancholy that lies within many of the Wailin’ Jennys’ songs, but there’s still an overwhelming sense of hope and happiness that is even stronger, and makes Firecracker a really great, uncontrived album. ~ Review by Marisa Brown
40 Days – The Wailin’ Jennys (Cara Luft, Nicky Mehta, and Ruth Moody); with Kevin Breit, dobro, mandolin, electric guitar, mandocello; Richard Moody, fiddle, viola; Mark Mariash, percussion, drums; Andrew Downing, acoustic bass; and others.
Canadian folkies the Wailin’ Jennys aren’t opposed to throwing down the occasional sea shanty or English drinking song. Multi-talented singer/songwriters Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta, and Cara Luft — the latter left the group soon after the album’s release and was replaced by Annabelle Chvostek — formed the group in 2002 after sharing the stage as soloists at an in-store in a local record shop, and their intoxicating blend of country, Celtic, and folk has cast a spell on not only the Great White North, but much of the U.S. as well. Like Gillian Welch or Alison Krauss, they can make new songs feel traditional (“Arlington”) and old songs sound brand new (“The Parting Glass”). Their perfectly rendered harmonies swoop into choruses like a murder of crows, supplying involuntary goose bumps to even the most hardened skeptic. 40 Days is full of sparse arrangements and top-notch songwriting from all three members. Other highlights include a rousing version of the seafaring tale “Saucy Sailor” — made famous by British folk-rock pioneers Steeleye Span — Moody’s beautiful title track, and Luft’s rollicking (an obvious show opener) “Come All You Sailors.” Fans of the Dixie Chicks, June Tabor, and even Heart will find much to love here. A most infectious first record, and highly recommended. ~ Review by James Christopher Monger